The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks

The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks

“You don’t need to go to Japan to enjoy Japan’s incredible drinking culture”.

For everyone interested in alcoholic beverages or Japanese culture and cuisine generally we recently spoke to Stephen Lyman, the co-author of The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks: Sake, Shochu, Japanese Whisky, Beer, Wine, Cocktails and Other Beverages (Tuttle, 2019). The book provides everything you need to know about the varieties of Japanese alcoholic beverages that are currently winning awards and converts around the world.

The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks was co-written with Chris Bunting who wrote the highly praised book Drinking Japan (Tuttle, 2011). The two authors decided that rather than guide readers through drinking establishments in Japan, they’d guide them through Japanese alcohol traditions and leave it to them where they’d like to drink. In other words, “You don’t need to go to Japan to enjoy Japan’s incredible drinking culture”.

It may be hard to conceive that there are more than 2,000 active breweries and distilleries producing more than 20,000 unique products in a country whose land area is roughly equivalent to Germany. So, what do you need to know?

Stephen says “Japanese alcohol traditions can be divided into traditional Japanese alcohols such as sake or shochu and Japanese interpretations of foreign alcohols such as whisky or beer. Of course, even with well-known Japanese alcohol such as sake and plum wine, there is still a wide misunderstanding of what they actually are. Neither sake, often called rice wine, or plum wine (umeshu in Japanese) is actually a wine. Sake is closer to beer and plum wine is actually a liqueur with the plums added for flavour after making the alcohol. Readers may also want to know that sake is actually the general word in Japanese for any alcohol including beer, whisky, wine and so on. Nihonshu is usually the term used if you want to refer specifically to the brewed rice sake but the more technical term is seishu.”

Hot or Cold Sake?

Hot sake was very much the norm in Japan until 1992 when a sake-grading system was introduced. As Stephen says “Today even in Japan people mistake warmed sake for bad sake. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that one sake brewery owner was refused when he requested his own sake warm (the proprietor didn’t know who he was). Instead, the brewery owner ordered his sake chilled, as the proprietor recommended, along with a side of hot tofu stew. He then put the carafe of chilled sake into the hot stew to warm it to his desired temperature. A pretty useful rule of thumb is that junmai (pure rice) sake is usually nice when served warm while the more refined sake such as ginjo and daiginjo are likely more enjoyable slightly chilled. That said, part of the fun of enjoying sake is exploring how different sake express themselves based on serving temperature and service vessel.”

Today’s trends have shifted back towards warming sake, particularly junmai and honjozo grades which often have lush flavours that open up with a little heat. But don’t heat it too much. Overheating can both burn off the alcohol and damage the other flavour and aroma compounds that make sake so interesting.

And for those that want to know what’s good? The authors describe “heaven” as being honjozo, junmai, ginjo or junmai ginjo, and daiginjo or junmai daiginjo sakes. These are the categories of modern premium sake which can be an unbelievably interesting drink.

Shochu — Japan’s Best Kept Secret

Unlike sake, which at times seems to have all of the pomp and circumstance of the Japanese tea ceremony, blue-collar shochu has few pretensions. However, Stephen has some recommendations for you but suggests experimenting to find your own preferences, which is part of the fun. The simplest is straight. As Stephen says, “most premium shochu distillers are hesitant to recommend how to drink their product, because consumers all have their own preferences. However, when pushed they will recommend you try their spirits straight in order to capture the full flavours and aromas they offer. Only after that should you decide how you’d like to drink it. It’s pretty amazing. Many shochu makers have never really thought about how to explain their products to consumers beside what they’re made from. I recently had the pleasure of joining a delegation of sake, wine, and shochu experts to the Amami Islands off the coast of Kagoshima where we gave “tasting notes” to the shochu makers. Many of them were not even familiar with the concept. As the only English speaker in the delegation I had the amazing opportunity to provide English language tasting notes to these makers for the first time.”

As to how to enjoy shochu, you can mix it with hot water (anywhere from 1:9 to 9:1 is fine but 3:7 to 6:4 are most popular), have it “on the rocks”, mixed with cold water, mixed with soda, or chilled. Again, like sake, the different brand will all shine differently depending on service style.

The book provides more detail on shochu as well as awamori (a traditional Okinawan spirit that predates shochu by at least a century) and umeshu (plum liqueur and other fruit ferments).

For the western alcohol traditions, the book has detailed chapters on Japanese Whisky, Japanese Beer, Japanese Wine and Japanese Cocktails. While these chapters describe drinks well understood to non-Japanese, the chapters have interesting stories about the history and development of these drinks in Japan. As an aside, we’d also recommend you look out for Brian Ashcraft’s book Japanese Whisky (Tuttle, 2018) if you want to learn about whisky in more detail.

Image by Chris Bunting from "The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks" used with permission from the publisher

Image by Chris Bunting from “The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks” used with permission from the publisher


Pouring for Others

When drinking in a group in Japan, it is customary to pour other people’s drinks and it is polite to wait for others in the group to pour yours. If you want to be really polite, pour while holding the bottle with two hands and hold your glass in two hands when receiving — and pour for older guests before pouring for younger ones. And when it’s time to “cheers” always endeavour to make sure the rim of your glass is below that of others as a sign of respect.

The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks: Sake, Shochu, Japanese Whisky, Beer, Wine, Cocktails and Other Beverages is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers.